Ever since Columbine (I was 17, at a Littleton high school, though not that Littleton high school), I've had trouble dealing with mass-murder type news stories. Which is only natural I suppose. Just like since Katrina, I've had trouble with natural disasters. I have dishonored the victims of the earthquake in Japan, hurricanes in New York, floods in south Asia, and shooting victims in Ft. Hood, Virginia Tech, and elsewhere by simply not being able to dredge up the depth of emotion that tragedies of that scale require. On some level, I feel like this makes me a bad person, but on another I don't stress about it because it's obvious, even to me, that my level of reaction is out of my control. I promise you there's only so many times you can look at a weather radar map and burst into tears before you have no tears left. And Columbine grated on my soul--over the whole community's soul--for a year or more. It faded from the national spotlight relatively quickly, but it was a constant presence in Littleton for a long time, and it wore me away. When Sept. 11th happened, and everyone was freaking out about how we weren't safe anymore, my reaction was more or less, "Well, of course not. You're just learning this now?"
Sometimes forcibly not paying attention is my only source of protection. So I understand that this is a delayed reaction of sorts, especially given our high-speed high-def instant-access world. But this is kids. Twenty kids. You can't not pay attention to that.
Who wasn't paying attention when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were asking their friends to buy them guns at gun shows? Who wasn't watching when they drove into the Colorado foothills for target practice?
Who didn't notice when Jared Lee Loughner started talking to himself, rambling incoherently, laughing at inappropriate times?
Who saw James Holmes booby trap his apartment and order 6,000 rounds of ammunition, and thought nothing of it?
How much longer can we characterize kids who are hurting--kids who are a danger to themselves and others--as quiet people that nobody really noticed?
I don't know. I know other people are having discussions about gun rights and gun control. I'm not pragmatic enough to manage it. My thought process is something along the lines of, "I don't care about gun control because KIDS ARE DEAD," which I understand is illogical and nonsensical, but it is what it is right now.
If guns don't kill people, as gun rights defenders are fond of saying (and I happen to agree), then it follows that guns don't protect people either. People protect people. (People hurt each other, too, most notably the people they know: as a woman, I'm more likely to be raped by someone I know. When I was a child, I was most likely to be kidnapped by someone I know. If my household has a gun in it, I'm more likely to be shot with that gun than I am to defend myself with it. It's simple statistical truth; it's just how the world goes.) So while others talk about banning assault rifles and keeping guns out of the hands of "the deranged" (which I agree with) (I've been treated for depression, does that make me deranged?), I've also been asking what would it take to get us, as Americans, to protect each other a little more and prey on each other a little less. About what it is that makes us prey on each other at all. If guns really protected people, then the South Side of Chicago would be the safest neighborhood in the country. Because guns really have very little to do with whether or not a person is safe. Safe neighborhoods are ones where peoples' basic needs are met, so they don't feel the need to rob them from other people. Safe neighborhoods are places where people have the interpersonal and educational skills to solve conflicts in ways that don't involve (escalating) violence (that is, even if my middle-class white dad gets in a fist fight either somebody, even if it's someone he knows, he can be reasonably certain that when the fist fight is over, that's the end of it. The other guy's son isn't going to come after my dad the next day demanding a rematch). Safe neighborhoods are where people have economic options in between "drug kingpin" and "McBurger Flipper." Safe neighborhoods don't have 40% unemployment rates. Safe neighborhoods, ironically, are where a dozen children die all at once in a hail of bullets fired by a madmen. Dangerous neighborhoods lose children every day, one at a time.
I do know this, though: we need to stop saying that things like this "don't happen here." Things like this happen everywhere. I learned that in April of 1999 (And what does it say about our culture that Columbine happened so many shootings ago that it doesn't even make most people's shorthand list of mass shootings anymore?). To say that it doesn't happen *here* implies that there are places where it does, where it's inevitable, where it's supposed to happen. Where we can live with it happening. A place over *there* where kids are expendable, the price of keeping our kids over here safe.
Either all of our kids matter, or none of them do.
You might be interesting in reading a book called The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. It's really fascinating, and although it's about all types of violence throughout all of civilization, it has a lot of history on gun violence in America. I'm only 10% of the way through it so far, and already I feel like I have a much better idea of how/why gun violence and other types of violence happen.
I'll have to look for that. I've read a bunch of academic articles on school shootings and school violence, but I'm always looking for a sociological explanation to the problem, simply because I can't believe that there's that many bad people in the world. There's a ton of people in bad situations that do bad things, but predatory sociopaths are actually quite rare.
I still feel vague, morbid surprise every time I get on the subway. Don’t people fall off the platform? Get hit by the front car? Land on the third rail? I’m fascinated by the garbage between the rails, by the rats. It amazes me that in this world where consumers are cautioned that bags of peanuts contain nuts, where playgrounds are padded and cars have upwards of four airbags and onboard maps, that I just walk through this turnstile and am expected to watch out for my own safety. There’s no guardrails, no guards, no attempt to keep people back other than the rough yellow floor panels. Every time I get hit with the whack of air pushed aside by the front of the car roaring into the station (which I try to not inhale), I check to make sure I’m back from the edge. I imagine London. Madrid. Die Hard: With a Vengeance. What will I do when catastrophe strikes? [It may be worth noting that I have exceeded my lifetime allotment of Law and Order, as recommended by the Association for Propagating Realistic Fears Through Television Council.] This continued fascination with the subway is probably one of the things that will give me away as a non-New Yorker, even if I spend the next thirty years here.
New Yorkers are supposed to be unflappable. Callous. They’ve seen it all, they don’t notice insanity or weirdness. New Yorkers just want to get where they’re going and not be bothered. People commented, after September 11th, how unusually nice everyone in New York was being to each other. When I moved here, wanting to witness this in action, I watched people watching weirdness—the drunks and the buskers and the beggars and people yelling at each other. I’ve decided that New Yorkers are just as put off by insanity and weirdness as people in Denver. But, like abused spouses who only want to avoid conflict whenever possible, subway riders employ the strategy of disengagement. Ignore it. It’ll go away. Ignore it. It’ll confine itself to ricocheting off the walls, it won’t splatter on me. There’s only three stops to go. It’s not worth the trouble.
I watch the people watching. We keep a close eye on the weirdness, all of us. We need to know the precise moment when Operation Ignore must escalate to Operation Mandatory Evacuation.
On the A train from JFK, two little black boys are arguing over how best to do the Moonwalk. One has the backward slide down. The other has noticed how Jackson would kick his knees forward just a little. They each have half the formula, they just need to combine it.
I make the mistake of opening my mouth to tell them this. They stare at me, stunned, unblinking. I have invaded their privacy.
Two years ago this month (on January 28, specifically), I was held at gunpoint in east Nashville. Two young males held a revolver up towards me and managed to escape unscathed with my wallet. It is easily one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I sometimes reflect on what happened, and hope it never happens again. (You can read the full story HERE.)
In light of both this and the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last month, I thought it would be a good opportunity to share my thoughts on the ongoing debate surrounding gun control.
I have to first say that in spite of my own experience with the barrel of a gun I am not opposed to the right of people to bare arms. In matters of self-defense against thieves, terrorists, rapists, and all sorts of perpetrators, I think that the mindful possession and minimal use of a gun is reasonable.
This is where I draw the line.